Taiwan says BioNTech Covid-19 vaccines available earlier than expected

Taiwan's tortured bid for the vaccine has become an issue of high political and diplomatic drama. PHOTO: REUTERS

TAIPEI (REUTERS) - Taiwan's government said BioNTech Covid-19 vaccines are available earlier than expected and it is striving to obtain them in competition with other countries.

Reuters reported on Wednesday (Aug 25) that Taiwan could get its first delivery of the German-made vaccines one month ahead of schedule as a delay in regulatory approval of the shot for use in mainland China made a surplus available for the island.

Taiwan's tortured bid for the vaccine, jointly developed with Pfizer, has become an issue of high political and diplomatic drama, after Taiwan accused China of blocking a deal earlier this year, which Beijing denied. China claims democratically governed Taiwan as its own territory.

Taiwan's government subsequently allowed tech giants Foxconn, its billionaire founder Gerry Gou, and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) to negotiate on its behalf for the shot. A US$350 million (S$473 million) deal for 10 million shots was inked last month, which will be donated to the government for distribution.

In a statement late on Wednesday, Taiwan's Central Epidemic Command Centre said it had been informed by TSMC an additional batch of vaccines made for BioNTech's Chinese sales agent Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Group will "leave the factory" in the second part of August. "This batch of vaccines is earlier than the first batch of supply scheduled by the donor units. Many countries are actively striving to get them. If Taiwan does not strive for them, this batch of vaccines may be sent to other countries."

The vaccines were originally meant for "elsewhere" and have Fosun's name on them in Chinese, and while this was not what Taiwan originally had in mind it is acceptable, it added. "As long as the quality of the vaccine is ensured, the labelling method can be given flexibility, so the government can accept it." TSMC did not immediately respond to a request for comment. BioNTech on Wednesday declined to comment.

One of the initial sticking points was the Taiwan government's insistence the vaccines come from Germany in their original packaging, rather than anything that implied Taiwan was having to take the vaccines from China, politically unacceptable for many Taiwanese.

While BioNTech chief executive Ugur Sahin said in April he expected its Covid-19 vaccine would win approval from the Chinese authorities "by June at the latest", no approval has been granted yet. The shot is approved in Chinese-run Hong Kong and Macau.

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